Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Translation

Can translators be superstars? A very few do seem to have celebrity status, at least in the world of literature. One thinks of people such as Maureen Freely, Eliot Weinberger, David Bellos, Clare Cavanagh, and Lawrence Venuti, among a few others.

And it is these people who have contributed short articles to a collection edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, In Translation. To read how great translators think about their work is enough reason to get the book. But it’s also an interesting and thought-provoking collection of essays, mostly about translating into English.

In their introduction, Allen and Bernofsky talk about the importance of translation, especially into English. They write, “translators into English can be said to labor in the service of monolingualism, as translation consolidates the global domination of English by increasing the degree to which the culture of the entire globe is available through English. At the same time, translation works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native languages.” (p. xv)

They also note that a “paradigm shift in the translator’s role is under way…[t]here is a generational move toward an image of the translator as an intellectual figure empowered with agency and sensibility who produces knowledge by curating cultural encounters.” (p. xix) This helps to explain why we see books such as In Translation now.

There is a good range of topics explored here. For example, Peter Cole, a poet and translator from Hebrew and Arabic to English, writes about ethical issues and about what is required of a translator. He implies that translation can be an uncomfortable job, and that making decisions isn’t easy. “To remain in bilingual or even polyglot mysteries is to enjoy the full resonance of literary possibility—to be tortured by its pleasures, if not always to be pleased by the torture; to decide is to find oneself—for a while—blessedly free of those doubts, but also hemmed in by one’s choices, possibly forever.” (p. 4) Cole feels that translation is “a matter of life and death—of reprieve (extended life for the work and possible its translator) or of execution (Again, of the work and possibly its translator). And when that work is from an earlier era, it leads to either profanation or resurrection of the dead.” (p. 13) One can add that it’s about the author’s life or death too.

Meanwhile, Catherine Porter, a professor emerita of French and translator of academic texts from French, makes a case for translation being taken seriously as a scholarly activity. She writes, “If we agree that our institutions should meet the demand for educated translators and interpreters, we must make room for translation studies in our curricula and develop a more capacious understanding of translation as a scholarly pursuit. It is my belief that scholarly and literary translations should be accepted and evaluated on the same basis as scholarly monographs in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure.” (p. 58) That is an idea that will surely challenge many people within academia.

In other pieces, Maureen Freely talks about Turkish and translating Orhan Pamuk; Jose Manuel Prieto writes about translating Osip Mandelstam from Russian to Spanish (and Prieto’s essay is translated to English from Spanish by Esther Allen); Christi A. Merrill offers a riddle and the idea that translators and authors should be called “storywriters”; and Ted Goossen suggests that for English readers “books need to be dubbed, not subtitled” (p. 186) because of the audience and publishers’ demands for invisibility.

In short, the essays in this book are varied and fascinating, and the superstar authors/translators included raise many points to consider.

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